RIYADH/DUBAI/ADDIS ABABA: More than a million people from across the world — managers, maids, accountants and labourers — have left Saudi Arabia since March, after years or even decades working in the Gulf Arab state, which sustains its own citizens with oil revenues.

Around 120,000 Ethiopians have been deported in the past month alone as part of a visa crackdown aimed at pushing more Saudis into employment to ensure future political and economic stability.

“We were kicked out of our homes and our jobs,” said Mohamed Ahmed, 27, waiting with thousands of other Ethiopians at a transit centre behind Addis Ababa’s Bole Airport after disembarking with a few bags from Saudi Arabian Airlines jets.

Like many others, Ahmed, who spent five years in Saudi Arabia after crossing the Red Sea in a fishing boat and trekking through turbulent Yemen, had to leave at short notice.

“We left all our belongings there,” he said.

Saudi Arabia avoided significant unrest during the Arab Spring pro-democracy protest wave in 2011, but its leaders were uncomfortably aware that entrenched unemployment was a big factor behind rebellions in other Arab states.

Cheap labour from 10 million foreigners in the country hampered previous government efforts to persuade the private sector to employ some of the 20 million locals.

Many of those who have left were illegal immigrants like Ahmed, who crossed the kingdom’s porous borders or stayed on after Haj pilgrimage, which attracts around two million foreign visitors to Makkah every year.

Many others came to Saudi Arabia legally then fell foul of rigid visa rules, which require all expatriates to work for a single employer in a field specified on their residence permit and are often used to exploit migrants.

Mohammed Yunus, 27, was brought to Saudi Arabia by an employment agency to work at a hotel after taking loans to travel to the kingdom, but was soon told to leave his job.

His sponsor then demanded 7,000 riyals a year to sign off on his visa papers while he found odd jobs on building sites and in grocery shops to pay his debts. Such tales of extortion are common among low-paid workers in the country.

“I am trying to get back to Saudi. There’s no way I can repay my debts by working in India,” said Yunus, who worked in Saudi Arabia for five years before leaving during an amnesty declared in March to encourage expatriates to head home without paying fines for violating residency rules.

The government said about four million people changed their visas to stay in the country, while another million left during the amnesty and can apply for new visas in future.

When it ended in early November, forcible deportations began. Authorities raided shops, offices, marketplaces and streets in low-income areas, checking residence permits.

The Labour Ministry has said it will set up new tribunals to hear expatriates’ complaints about their sponsors, but it has no plans to change the sponsorship system itself, something even a Saudi government-affiliated rights group recommends.

The cost for many migrant workers has been high. In the poor south Riyadh neighbourhood of Manfouha, an Ethiopian man was killed in a confrontation with police during a visa raid. Days later, local anger spilled into clashes between Ethiopian migrants, riot police and some Saudis, leaving three dead.

Ahmed, the returnee to Addis Ababa, said gangs of Saudis attacked Ethiopians and raped Ethiopian women. Saudis said Ethiopians had started the riot, rampaging through Manfouha with knives and sticks.

For the millions of expatriates remaining in Saudi Arabia the crackdown inspires gallows humour.

A comic song “Passport department is coming” has attracted a million views on YouTube.

“I want to help other expatriates, especially those born here, understand this is our country as well,” said Faez Choudhary, a Pakistani national who wrote the song.—Reuters

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